Das große, heilige Cöln

Credit: Raimond Spekking

This past weekend I visited the Cathedral in Köln, Germany, the massive gothic structure that stands out for miles as the principal landmark of the city. The Dom (that's the word auf Deutsch for Cathedral) dwarfs everything around it. When you arrive by train, you leave the station and immediately gaze up to see this remarkable monument of human achievement.

I had visited Köln once before – in 2008 while doing an audition tour in Europe. My husband was joining me for a week and we stayed in a hotel near the Dom and Hauptbahnhof. At the time, I didn't have the perspective to consider the history of the Dom or appreciate it very much. It appeared to me as a sad and blackened hulking mass overlooking a rainy and severe city. I'm glad that we get the chance in life to reevaluate our perspective on places! This time around I was visiting a friend and I got to see Köln as a busy, jovial, liberal and bustling city, with a keen awareness for its history dating back to the time of the Romans. The Dom is the centerpiece of the city, and stands as the symbol for its heritage.

 Credit: Arminia

Credit: Arminia

I decided to take a tour of the Dom. It was a small group (seven of us) led in English by a guide who spoke into a microphone that transmitted to headsets we wore. The Dom is quite noisy, and the immediacy of the guide's voice was very helpful. The guide showed us the reliquary – a beautiful jewel-encrusted gold box containing the bones of six men, three of whom are rumored to be the famous three kings of the Orient. While there is no way to prove the veracity of this, the fact that generations of believers have invested faith in the bones' authenticity gives the Dom a great deal of spiritual significance as a pilgrimage site. Without these relics, the church would not be what it is today.

We also learned about the construction of the building; it was a replacement for the previous Romanesque cathedral that stood on the same spot. What surprised me was the fact that the gothic spires of the church were not completed until the second half of the nineteenth century! They rose in conjunction with German unification, as a symbol of the growth of German nationalism. When I learned about this timeline fact, I realized that some of the imagery I used in preparing Schumann's Dichterliebe was incorrect. In song 6, “Im Rhein, im heilige Strome”, Heine refers to “Das Grosse Heilige Cöln”. I always imagined these massive gothic spires as the “Grosse” descriptor. Wrong! The Dom must have been perhaps half the height that we know today, but yet it was such an important pilgrimage site, and such an impressive monument that Heine knew referencing it in his poem would be significant.

Here is a drawing of what the Dom looked like in Heine's time.

 Source:  Lithographie "Dom Südseite" von J. Redaway, aus: Robert Batty (1824).   Views on the Rhine in Belgium and Holland  , London.

Source: Lithographie "Dom Südseite" von J. Redaway, aus: Robert Batty (1824). Views on the Rhine in Belgium and Holland, London.